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It's A Gray Area: Government needs to step out of center debate

September 04, 2010|James P. Gray

So should the Muslim community be "allowed" to build a mosque or religious center two blocks away from the former World Trade Center site? Actually President Obama gave us the answer. Numbers of times in these pages I have been critical about some of Obama's comments and policies, mostly dealing with economic issues, but this time he got it exactly right!

Obama said that the government should not interfere in this decision because it is a question of religious freedom. But he also said that, under the circumstances, building a mosque or religious center in that place would be insensitive, and the Muslim community should show the grace to decide to put it somewhere else. This may be a subtle distinction, but it is a critically important one.

First of all, this issue presents a wonderful teaching opportunity to show the world that we really do have religious freedom in the United States — and make no mistake, the world is watching! Because the Muslims own the land and the zoning is in their favor, they have the clear legal and constitutional right to build the center on this site, and that should end the government's involvement. The idea of "I support religious freedom, but not in my back yard" is not what the Bill of Rights stands for.

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But secondly, and even more importantly, if we persist in looking to the government every time decisions like this have to be made, we will lose the ability to deal with each other as people. For example, years ago when I moved into a new house in San Clemente, the homeowner's association was contemplating installing a system of fines for virtually every activity one could imagine. So if people left their trash cans on the street for too many hours after the trash was collected, they would receive a fine. Or if your neighbors mowed their lawns on a Sunday morning, you could call the "association police" and have a fine assessed. I attended a meeting and recommended that the whole system be scrapped.

Instead I suggested that if your neighbors were playing their music too loud, etc., simply go across the street, introduce yourself (if you have to) and politely ask them to turn the volume down. That would give everyone the opportunity to act in a "neighborly" fashion, which is what most of us would do if given the chance. Those in attendance agreed with that approach, and voted down the program. (And then they proceeded to draft me to be a member of the board of directors.)

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